Flashpoint

When I was a farmer, work was dangerous.  Whirling wheels and belts on combines, tractors that could turn over on you, and flowing grain that could suffocate you in a heartbeat.  Because our fathers were so worried about such a thing happening to my cousins, brother, and me, they put a healthy degree of fear and caution into us.  It worked, and we rarely had an injury.

One type of accident was curious.  It usually only occurs in large grain elevators, but could happen anywhere grain is being handled in large quantities.  Every time grain is moved, a certain amount of dust is kicked up into the air.  In a closed space, the dust particles can reach fairly high concentrations.  And explode.

It turns out that this can happen with other things.  Coal dust is the best-known, but even printing toner can do it.  The curious part is that the ratio of particles to air has to be just right.  Too much and it is safe; too little and it is safe.

When I lived in Wichita, KS, I saw the aftermath of a grain bin explosion.  The entire tops of several bins were obliterated and four workers lost their lives.  I drove by soon after the event because I had heard of this phenomenon all my life but never had actually seen it.  Aside from the sheer physical power of the explosion, I was awestruck at how quick it all must have been.  Working one second, blown to pieces the next.  Cruel, tragic, and instantaneous.

The Middle East seems to me like one big grain elevator.  In a culture that for centuries more or less accepted the idea that rulers rule and people obey, we suddenly see just the right combination of ideas, technology, and basic sensibilities about humanity to result in a flashpoint.  Same with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989.  Same with the United States in…

1776.

Recently, I was listening to an audio program about Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense.  Paine was talked into writing this pamphlet by a publisher who was wary of being associated with the independence movement.  Most people were still keen on reconciliation with Great Britain and Paine did not have the ties that the publisher did.  By agreeing, Paine became the spark that lit the Revolutionary War.

Circumstances had to be just right.  A long-standing tradition in England held that the monarch was limited in his/her power.  John Locke and other writers had worked out the fundamentals of libertarianism as a political philosophy, though it was not called that at the time.  Printing technology enabled fast and wide distribution of radical ideas.  The grain dust exploded.

We are seeing such a flashpoint here in the US today.  I do not mean that violence is inevitable, though some is likely.  I mean that the current combination of ideas and the means to distribute them are just right for a major change in the way we do things–an explosion of sorts.  Julian Assange, no matter what you think of him, laid bare any remaining pretense that our government deals forthrightly with its citizens and other nations.  Libertarian thinking has enjoyed wide distribution via the Internet.  Tea Partiers, with no central authority or guidance whatsoever, emerged in a few months as a powerful political player.

Contained within a flashpoint are the seeds of many different things.  The very nature of an explosion is chaos followed by re-ordering–the renewed forest after a lightning strike, the rebuilt grain bin, the free and independent country.  A flashpoint can also lead to prolonged destruction–the rise of a tyrant, the declaration of martial law, the resignation of citizens to a hopeless future.

I am optimistic about our flashpoint, but I shudder to think of the price we are about to pay for our complacency.  Power-grabbers, from unions to political thugs, will not relinquish power agreeably.  We have to ante up now and reclaim the country Thomas Paine sparked for us.  May we have the wisdom to see it through to the other side.

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About Terry Noel

I am an Associate Professor of Management and Quantitative Methods at Illinois State University. My specialty is entrepreneurship.
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